It seems almost rude, but brackets are your way of butting back in when someone else is speaking, either to change the tense of a verb or explain who was meant by that pronoun, whatever. You’re just trying to clarify what’s being said, though, so I guess it’s not as rude as it seems.

Professional Samples

  • “I’m not worried about it,” she says finally. “I have nieces and nephews. Of course, Shel [husband and Timberwolves big man Shelden Williams] and I joke that we can’t send this one home.”

~from Allison Glock’s “The Selling of Candace Parker”
in ESPN The Magazine

  • “The french fry [was] . . . almost sacrosanct for me,” Ray Kroc wrote in his memoir, “its preparation a ritual to be followed religiously.”

~from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation

  • “For a child growing up in the turmoil of [postwar] Berlin . . . the Americans were angels,” Christa Maerker, a Berlin filmmaker, wrote in an essay on postwar Germany’s infatuation with the United States.

~from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation

  • Again and again characters (the bad ones like Lloyd Henreid as well as the good ones like Stu Redman and Larry Underwood) mention the fact that “all that stuff [i.e., weapons of mass destruction] is just lying around, waiting to be picked up.”

~from Stephen King’s On Writing

  • Kemp intoned, “I think it is important for all those young out there, who someday hope to play real football, where you throw it and kick it and run with it and put it in your hands, a distinction should be made that football is democratic, capitalism, whereas soccer is a European socialist [sport].”

~from Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World

  • We had lived in Southeast Asia for a year right after we were married . . . and had suffered from a number of strange diseases. . . . I had a few embarrassing gynecological problems that required visits to the Clinic for Wormen [sic].

~from Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam

  • The research was based on a small sample, to be sure, and it is not without other imperfections, as McQuade himself freely and frequently admits, but it seems to me that he conclusively proves his belief that “we [teachers] must evaluate our own teaching, . . . including those features of it that we have come to value most” (p. 30).

~from Edgar Schuster’s Breaking the Rules:
Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction

How Brackets Work

“Quote [with a change].”

Brackets are used to alter or add to words in a quote. They tell the reader that a change has been made, usually for clarification purposes, such as coordinating the verb tense or explaining a pronoun: “While some still argue over the causes of it [global warming] . . . .” The writer can choose (unless style guides dictate) whether to simply add the explanation, as in this example, or change the original wording altogether: “the causes of [global warming].”

Brackets follow the same guidelines as parentheses as far as where other punctuation is placed next to them: after the brackets when inside a sentence, before the last bracket if an entire sentence is bracketed.

unusual spelling [sic]

Sometimes brackets are used for special indications, such as the Latin comment sic, which tells readers that the spelling or other obvious error is either purposeful or original or both. Other indications might be other clarification notes, such as [see insert] or [emphasis added], but only when the editor adds them, not the author. Whenever the author adds the note, they would use parentheses.

Self Check

Brackets are editorial marks: they are inserted by the editor, not the author. You would not use them on your own writing (that’s what parentheses are for!). So first check to be sure that you’ve used it to edit a quote (for clarification) and next check to be sure that the quote reads smoothly with the change.

Confusion Warning

Again, brackets and parentheses are NOT interchangeable.

  • Parentheses are used for side notes made by the author.
  • Brackets are used for changes made by the editor.

(You become an editor if you are inserting someone else’s writing into your own, like using their quote within your paper.)

If you are the one writing the sentence, use parentheses. If you are quoting a sentence from someone else and need to add a word or more for clarification, use brackets.



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